Character is Action: Lessons from Jerry Cleaver
“What conflict does is make the characters act. It forces them to use themselves - to act in a way that reveals who they are.” - Jerry Cleaver, Immediate Fiction
According to writer and writing instructor Jerry Cleaver, “nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their struggles.” Character itself is what we identify with as readers. It’s what makes us feel for these people, and how we can ultimately connect with ourselves. And that’s the goal of a good story: to see the world through someone else so that we might learn more about who we are and what we truly want. Therefore, the goal of any writer worth their salt is to reveal character through conflict.
Let’s examine character for a moment.
Consider an improvisational scene. Two players walk onstage. Instantly, one player begins to lead with their hips; the other with their chin. They move around the space, eyeing each other up. Suddenly, Mr. Chin slides his finger over an invisible surface, as if an invisible fireplace mantle existed for only him to see. He rubs his fingers together, as if they are covered with dust. He scoffs with disgust, with his malice directed squarely at his scene partner. Mr. Hips shys away from this behavior, as if he’s suddenly in trouble. Now we see that he’s holding an invisible feather duster. He’s playing with its imaginary feathers with his other hand.
Now, which would reveal more character? Consider what Mr. Chin wants. Here, it appears that he wants a dust-free abode. What’s standing in his way of this? Well, at the moment, Mr. Hips appears to be incompetent at dusting. That could be the obstacle. Suddenly, Mr. Chin opens his mouth: “Son, if you’re going to run my cleaning business, please, do me this one favor: pull your head out of your ass and learn how to freaking dust! I’m begging you.”
OK, so now we realize this is a father-son dynamic. Maybe Mr. Chin wants to leave the business to his son, maybe he wants desperately to retire, maybe he wants to spend the rest of his days on Myrtle Beach basking in the sun…only his incompetent son can’t even use a feather duster. That’s the obstacle. For Mr. Chin, retirement is a life or death need. He’s absolutely reached the end of his rope, and if his son doesn’t step it up a notch, he’ll never get the peace and tranquility he believes he’s earned over the past forty years of hard labor.
An audience member might instantly relate to Mr. Chin. He too wants to retire. He too wants to pass on his hard earned businesses and success on to his offspring; but his kid just doesn’t seem to understand what’s required. That’s relatable. That’s identifying.
So, what happens next? What would reveal even more character?
Let’s say the son begins to frantically dust the room. His father starts to cough and wheeze. What’s next? Does the father have an asthma attack? Does the son miss the signs of one starting? What’s the next obstacle between the father and his blessed retirement? How does he respond to his son’s frantic attempts at success? How does he deal with this struggle?
As a writer, your goal is to make the want as strong as the obstacle. Your character has to go all the way. He or she has to fight with everything they’ve got to get where they want to go. As Jerry points out in his book, Immediate Fiction (which has way better examples than mine), Captain Ahab goes all the way in trying to kill the white whale, just as Romeo goes all the way in trying to win Juliet. And for every action they take towards their goal, there is an equal and opposite reaction…a mighty obstacle forever standing in their way. Will the character achieve the goal or not? That’s what keeps an audience engaged, whether at an improv show or while reading a work of fiction.
You’ve heard the term “kill your darlings.” All this means is that you must torture your characters. You’ve got to torture Mr. Chin. Make it so that he may never get to retire. Every time he gets one step towards his goal, his incompetent son drags him right on back. You’ve got to challenge your characters in this way. Make them miserable, but make them fighters. They can’t just lie back and take it, and they certainly can’t enjoy themselves either. Mr. Chin isn’t about to throw up his hands and leave his son to destroy his business. No - he’s stuck having to deal with the situation, and how he deals with it tells you everything you need to know about Mr. Chin.
How does he feel about having an incompetent son? How does he feel about his business? And how can you show the audience that?
You might think, oh, a character is someone who leads with his chin or leads with his hips when he walks. Maybe he speaks with a New Jersey accent, or has a certain spring in his step. Maybe he loves to eat American cheese singles on green peas. But those don’t represent character - those are merely character traits. Character is how Mr. Chin responds to his son’s incompetence, it’s how he fights for retirement, and it’s how he struggles to overcome his greatest obstacle: the incompetent Mr. Hips.
The key thing to keep in mind is that action reveals character. In fact, action is character. Consider how you might react to something happening in your life. What if the same thing happened to your best friend, your sister, your father? How might they react differently? Those reactions reveal who they are, how they see the world, and what makes them tick. But you wouldn’t know their character unless something occurred that forced them to reveal it.
So the next time you sit down to write a work of fiction, either start with the want or start with the obstacle. They must be equal and opposing.
From there, use Jerry’s formula: Conflict + Action + Resolution = Story.
Once you can determine the conflict, how your character will react to it, and what the final results will be, you’ll have a story on your hands - one that keeps the audience watching.
In the meantime, you can purchase Jerry’s book, Immediate Fiction, here.